We begin the story of Joseph and his brothers. They do not get along very well. Joseph is the favored son of their father Jacob. The brothers resent this and scheme against him. Some want to kill him. Reuben tries to save him by convincing them to throw him into a pit. He plans to later rescue him, but the brothers instead, on the advice of Judah, sell him into slavery. They then tell their father that wild beasts killed Joseph. Jacob is forever distraught.
The Torah’s language is wrenching in its starkness and simplicity. “…And they took Joseph and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to a meal.” (Genesis 37:24-25)
The Vilna Gaon comments: Why does it have to say “there was no water”? After all, doesn’t “empty” imply there was no water? The Midrash Bereshit Rabbah teaches: “Rather there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions in it.“ The human mind abhors a vacuum. If it is is not filled with the water of Torah, it must be filled with snakes and scorpions of other beliefs.
The tradition often likens Torah to water. Like water it sustains us. Better to fill our minds with Torah than with other beliefs. Crowd out other ideas is the tradition’s counsel. I have always believed that there is plenty of room in my heart for all manner of ideas. I can love Torah while also loving modern philosophy and contemporary poetry, and even Eddie Money (Gimme Some Water!).
Then again, imagine Joseph, alone in the darkness of the pit. Imagine how his thoughts might have tormented him. Would the Torah that he so loved sustain him? Would the love that his father showered on him secure his faith? Are those snakes and scorpions at my feet?
Perhaps the tradition is right. When our hearts are overcome with hopelessness and despair, fill them instead with the music of our prayers. The Psalmist can indeed sustain us. The tradition can indeed mend broken hearts.
Such words cannot rescue Joseph. That is dependent on our own hands. We must reach down ourselves and rescue our brother from the pit.
Torah can give us strength and courage. That is why we pray. That is why we fill our hearts with its teachings. So that when our hearts our broken we can gain sustenance. We can then not only mend our own hearts but others as well.
There are far too many people trapped in the pit for us not to pray, for us not to gain fortitude from the waters of Torah. Drink so that others might be rescued. Taste so that our hearts might be healed.